A year ago we noted here that a huge, financially troubled Austrian lumber company is being courted by the state of South Carolina and Orangeburg County to build the world's biggest sawmill on 280 acres west of Charleston at Rowesville.

The mega-mill is one of three similar operations Klausner USA - with offices in Austria, China, India, Lebanon and Myrtle Beach - plans in Southeast. The one in Florida started up recently and North Carolina's may soon follow.

The Rowesville mill on the North Edisto River would hire an estimated 330 people directly and 2,500 more in logging, trucking, resource management and related businesses. The mill would add 700 tractor-trailer trucks loaded with wood products on I-26 to and from the State Ports Authority docks 365 days a year.

Unfortunately, an estimated 135,000 vehicles already crowd the intersection of I-26 and I-526 at Charleston, many headed to shipping terminals on both sides of the Cooper River. No rail accommodations to Orangeburg are in the offing now because of logistics and the expense. But, presumably, Norfolk Southern's run to the state's new inland port 200 miles upstate at Greer would ease some truck traffic here.

The Klausner mill would require at least an additional 500 fully loaded logging trucks daily to haul fresh-cut pines on county, state and federal highways within 75 miles of Rowesville to meet demand, and this would be just for starters. Klausner executive Thomas Mende, an Austrian native who lives in Myrtle Beach, says the Rowesville mill would crank up next year at only half capacity.

No more 'killer trees'?

No wonder the S.C. highway department insists on a mass execution all those well-publicized "killer trees" in the I-26 median between Summerville and Charleston.

No wonder paving the median is under way between Orangeburg and the I-77 turnoff near Cayce. With all the trucks, cars, business travelers, newcomers, tourists, and you and me headed to and from Charleston on I-26, every tree in the middle of the superhighway seems destined for the ax.

The Rowesville plant could process up to 700 million board feet of pine a year. That's an estimated nine times as many trees processed locally in seven smaller mills. Now, multiply 700 million board feet by three to include Klausner's other two new Southeast mega-mills and you'll see why folks fret about our Southern pine resources.

Local and state authorities, including the State Ports Authority and others in the economic boosterism business, are thrilled about the jobs the Rowesville mill and related "cluster" industries promise. Klausner would be to Orangeburg what Boeing is to Charleston.

Also, not far from Rowesville, intensive industrial development, especially for moving and storing shipping containers via land, is planned in the barren triangle of land formed by I-26, I-95 and U.S. 301 near St. George in Dorchester County - currently the most underdeveloped interstate highway intersection in the nation.

Big benefits for mega-mill

Klausner's Mende spoke recently at World Grits Headquarters in St. George to more than 80 landowners, foresters, loggers, truckers and others.

He said South Carolina offered Klausner the most attractive benefits package of all three states where the giant mills are sited. But exactly what taxpayers must give to subsidize the Austrians remains an official secret.

"Yellow pine forests in the Southeast have a fantastic future," Mende said, adding that wood consumption per capita is directly proportional to the gross national product. Southern pine is used for poles, pulp, packaging, paper, pallets, pellets, pressurized wood and other products. He said 40 percent of the world population wants housing, and there are more suitable pines in the Southeastern United States than anywhere on the planet.

Mende said that since Klausner shut down or sold three mega-mills in Germany and reorganized in 2006, he has lined up a host of global consumers for Southeastern pine products. "The South is the only place in the world that has enough trees to supply us."

But he did not say a reason that Klausner lost its German mills and had to restructure its operations headed here is there were no longer enough trees left over there to feed the saws.

John M. Burbage has been a newspaper reporter, editor and publisher in the Carolinas for 44 years. He lives in Charleston and owns a farm in Hampton County.